Advanced prostate cancer is treated by androgen ablation and/or androgen receptor (AR) antagonists. In order to investigate the mechanisms relevant to the development of therapy-resistant tumours, we established a new tumour model which closely resembles the situation in patients who receive androgen ablation therapy. Androgen-sensitive LNCaP cells were kept in androgen-depleted medium for 87 passages. The new LNCaP cell subline established in this manner, LNCaP-abl, displayed a hypersensitive biphasic proliferative response to androgen until passage 75. Maximal proliferation of LNCaP-abl cells was achieved at 0.001 nM of the synthetic androgen methyltrienolone (R1881), whereas 0.01 nM of this compound induced the same effect in parental cells. At later passages (> 75), androgen exerted an inhibitory effect on growth of LNCaP-abl cells. The non-steroidal anti-androgen bicalutamide stimulated proliferation of LNCaP-abl cells. AR protein expression in LNCaP-abl cells increased approximately fourfold. The basal AR transcriptional activity was 30-fold higher in LNCaP-abl than in LNCaP cells. R1881 stimulated reporter gene activity in LNCaP-abl cells even at 0.01 nM, whereas 0.1 nM of R1881 was needed for induction of the same level of reporter gene activity in LNCaP cells. Bicalutamide that acts as a pure antagonist in parental LNCaP cells showed agonistic effects on AR transactivation activity in LNCaP-abl cells and was not able to block the effects of androgen in these cells. The non-steroidal AR blocker hydroxyflutamide exerted stimulatory effects on AR activity in both LNCaP and LNCaP-abl cells; however, the induction of reporter gene activity by hydroxyflutamide was 2.4- to 4-fold higher in the LNCaP-abl subline. The changes in AR activity were associated neither with a new alteration in AR cDNA sequence nor with amplification of the AR gene. Growth of LNCaP-abl xenografts in nude mice was stimulated by bicalutamide and repressed by testosterone. In conclusion, our results show for the first time that the nonsteroidal anti-androgen bicalutamide acquires agonistic properties during long-term androgen ablation. These findings may have repercussions on the natural course of prostate cancer with androgen deprivation and on strategies of therapeutic intervention.